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Gene Wilder

Mr. Funny Face, the great actor, comedian and writer Gene Wilder died today. The star of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein (which he also wrote) and Silver Streak was 83 years old. And, though he is associated with a streak of absurdist comedy brought forth chiefly by his frequent creative partner Mel Brooks, a wonderful source of silliness grounded in seriousness has been lost.


Gene Wilder in ‘The World’s Greatest Lover’

The screenwriter Wilder supposedly took his name from writers, too, blending a character from Look Homeward, Angel and the name of an American playwright, which suggests his thoughtful nature. The literary tie-in was apparent throughout his remarkable career, which was remarkable for its many failures, which he constantly overcame.

Gene Wilder broke out at the peak of the counterculture in 1971’s weirdly brazen yet reassuring adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Paramount’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, though he had made an impression in smaller roles, too, such as an innocent victim in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Wilder played Wonka, of course, in the box office musical flop, one of many of his commercial failures that nevertheless influenced movies, ideas and culture. I think it was the first motion picture of his that I saw in a movie theater. I was transfixed, not by his weirdness, which forged a path for movie stars such as Johnny Depp.

I was captivated by his oddly severe benevolence. This unique quality, Wilder’s strange seriousness gilded with kindness, is his defining and most enduring screen persona. He displayed it, too, in his triumphant 1980 movie with director Sidney Poitier (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) and another famous comedian, Stir Crazy. I don’t think I had ever laughed so hard in a movie as when I watched his pairing with the late comic genius Richard Pryor (and, oddly enough, that movie was my first experience of seeing a movie being filmed; it was at the Tucson, Arizona hotel where I was vacationing with my family).

Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor are Hollywood’s first interracial comedy duo. The hilarious pair made four movies together. A look, a squeal, a facial expression, a line, a gesture, everything they did was comic chemistry on screen as they mined an audience and story for wonder, laughter and satire in everything they did. Though it’s not perfect, 1976’s Silver Streak teamed the Pryor-Wilder pair again, this time with liberated woman Jill Clayburgh in one of the rare madcap comedy capers of the 1970s to successfully integrate drama, suspense and humor with something semi-serious at stake. I know that many remember Wilder best for his roles in two 1974 Mel Brooks movies, which I never cared for, though Wilder is brilliant in Young Frankenstein. I prefer his other movies.

Gene Wilder made me laugh in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) with Pryor, Wilder’s last movie I think I paid to see in a theater. Who can forget 1986’s silly Haunted Honeymoon with his then-wife, the late Gilda Radner, who preceded Wilder in death by ovarian cancer, and the late Dom DeLuise in drag? I think his best role was as innocent convict Skip in Stir Crazy, which still makes me laugh when I think about it. Gene Wilder went on to play in a television movie of Alice in Wonderland and his own TV series. He could play characters that were in turns biting, cruel and vapid. He was an amazing writer and actor of ability whose rubbery or stone face could fill a movie with enough humor to make it seem funnier than it was and, while it turns out that his legacy is to have been lampooning a world gone mad, Gene Wilder somehow managed to do it without sneering at the good.

His seriousness made it easier to take the silly less seriously. As Willy Wonka, his silliness made it easier to take goodness more seriously.

Gene Wilder is for this reason alone already sorely, deeply missed. He is survived by his friends, family and wife, Karen, and, I know, childlike people everywhere who cherish his depiction of a strange, kind industrialist who, with “pure imagination”, dramatized that it is possible to be good in a world going bad.

Movie Review: Abortion: Stories Women Tell

A new 90-minute documentary about abortion, HBO’s Abortion: Stories Women Tell, demonstrates how endangered the right to abortion has become. This is not a compliment to the film, however, which plays it safe and doesn’t fundamentally inform or enlighten the audience about abortion. Granted, the title does not promise very much. But heartbreaking tales of why women choose to have an abortion, mixed with tales of women who choose to campaign and crusade against abortion, are just stories.

large_Abortion-poster-HBO-2106-1There’s no attempt to reconcile stories with facts, let alone evidence. Heck, there isn’t even an attempt to instruct the audience in what an abortion, a medical procedure which terminates the fetus, entails. Abortion is left to one’s imagination in Abortion, which is exactly what happens as bits and pieces of the procedure are referenced in disjointed fragments and, in one long diatribe, a fundamentalist Christian rails against abortion, incorrectly referring to the fetus as a “baby”, without any contrary argument. I think the filmmakers must think this is a “balanced” approach or that they mistake objectivity for refusing to take a position on anything including the facts of reality. Either that or they think the case for abortion needs no facts, which is not true. The effect is that the presumably pro-rights Abortion backfires and comes across as a movie which regards the anti-abortion and pro-rights positions as morally equivalent.

After some setup including the dubiously worded assertion that the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion “gives” the right to women and a preface about an anti-abortion law in Missouri which drives women across the border to an abortion clinic in Illinois, the movie by director Tracy Droz Tragos sets the basic, familiar conflict. It’s the fundamentalist religious people versus the women seeking to have or provide abortion.

A documentary about women’s abortions can’t help but be moving and interesting, as lower middle, poor and middle class women report their various reasons, which are mostly financial. “I’m doing this for me,” one individual says. Another reports the HIV virus infection as a motive to abort. Someone else explains that her fetus is discovered to have a deformity which will leave it without a skull above the eyes. Several women report abusive fathers as the reason to abort. One woman says her worst decision was to have unprotected sex and adds that her best decision is to have an abortion.

That abortion is a woman’s fundamental right to control her own body is beyond dispute, but it’s never put that way in this rambling, unfocused film, which horrifyingly presents the anti-abortionist side without commentary or correction, leaving atrocious assertions left unchecked and uncorrected. One protester’s gruesome description goes on and on without the most elementary fact check. Worse, the abortion is left unexamined as a legitimate clinical procedure. The clinic’s guardians, escorts—religionists brand them “deathscorts”—and nurses and doctors are most forthright and compelling, with a mother who’s a security guard openly and with good reason expressing her thoughts on the anti-abortionists, who tell the patients and clinicians that they’re going to burn in hell and that sort of nonsense. “Let God plan parenthood,” reads another one’s t-shirt.

But these religious radicals are depicted without the slightest qualification, giving their irrational views undue credence.

When one woman finally talked about the abortion pill, I felt a sense of relief for her sake. This is because, as observed by Dr. Erin, as she’s known here in a common tactic to protect the identity of those who offer this service to patients for fear of terrorist attack and/or murder or assassination, the anti-abortionist conservatives have all but won the war against a woman’s right to abortion by thoroughly stigmatizing the procedure, leaving fewer places to get an abortion.

“People are going to die,” the doctor rightly warns, forecasting death due to de facto abortion bans—I know that fewer and fewer doctors are trained in the procedure, which I know no thanks to Abortion—and punitive laws. Abortion: Stories Women Tell lacks the narrative and thematic clarity and cohesion to let the women who choose and practice abortion tell their full stories—of marriages, fortunes and lives saved, Casey Anthony type mother-murderers averted and inalienable rights exercised—and it fails to show the truth of the right to abort a pregnancy. Worse, while the stories are involving for their seriousness, it leaves the impression that stories as such, including those told by religious fanatics, are a better measure of truth than medicine, facts and evidence.

The individual’s right to his or her own body is sacred. The exercise of this right deserves serious scrutiny and non-fictional filmmaking. Abortion regards storytelling as an end in itself and, in doing so, it sells the true story of—including a woman’s right to—abortion short.

Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Have you wanted something badly enough to be blinded by the wanting? This is the moral dilemma at the heart of Florence Foster Jenkins, the newest movie by director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena, Mrs. Henderson Presents) about a matronly woman who bucks the status quo for her own private reasons of innermost agony. The humor is as broad, the delivery as dry and the showmanship as campy and bawdy as in his previous outings.

This time, however, the woman’s life is itself more centrally at stake.

FFJ_1SHT_MAIN_fff-600x878The title character is, once again, based upon a real person. As portrayed by showy Meryl Streep (Hope Springs, The Iron Lady, Suffragette, The Giver, Into the Woods), playing an old woman as old for the first time in her long and enduring career, the title character is a haughty eccentric with an impetuous and checkered past which jeopardizes her health. Paramount’s marketing has successfully established for the audience in advance that Jenkins is an awful singer who skates along taking voice lessons and singing out of tune.

Florence Foster Jenkins dramatizes why she does that. While you’re waiting for the big moment, whatever it may be, Florence Foster Jenkins dramatizes something else, though, too; how being a failure in some endeavors can let you cash in on other, higher values.

Florence Foster Jenkins is not as sentimental as it sounds, and it’s a complicated, lush and polished Forties-in-New York-City affair which makes you laugh at the main character, double check the laughter and think twice about what the whole movie means (as Frears pictures usually do).

Opening credits play on New York’s skyline, teasing the romp to come. Decked in outrageous costumes and prancing around her marriage to Hugh Grant’s Shakespearean actor, who’s reduced to being her manager, Jenkins has good taste in music. She favors Chopin. She creates an appreciation club for Verdi. She supports her conductor friend Toscanini. But the rotund heiress, who once played piano in the White House as a child, can’t sing. That she really, really wants to sing and is oblivious to her inability makes most of the movie’s humor.

Hugh Grant shines portraying her husband, who, incidentally, really, really wants to act. He arranges an elaborate facade which becomes the film’s farcical conflict, evoking the spirit of the lighter, naughtier Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The dreadful private shows are hilariously deceitful whatever the ethics and it’s hard to suppress laughter no matter how hard you try. Enter an expressive, young pianist (perfectly cast Simon Helberg) with an ambition to match hers and the plot deepens.

For a time, screenwriter Nicholas Martin seems to lampoon serious artists but that’s not a Frears imprint. Then, there seems to be a contest between loyalty and unchecked or unearned ambition but that’s not it, either. How then to account for a movie that holds its ardent fool in high regard? This puzzle is part of what makes Florence Foster Jenkins, neatly scored by Alexandre Desplat, engaging, if not flawless. As the young performer comes out, and how and what he comes out and into happens in gentle and suggestive ways, this Paramount picture’s theme that art in general and music in particular, from opera’s Verdi to jazz’s Louis Armstrong, inspires one to become stronger for life takes shape.

This happens in a scene at the young man’s home, a warm, lived in place of solitude where he conditions and practices with relaxed, monastic devotion. It’s a lovely scene for its bonding and it marks the transition of Florence Foster Jenkins from a snickering, snorting romp to an elegy for making real in one’s life the track that plays in one’s mind.

In an age of flickering amusements by American Idol‘s Sanjaya or William Hung, as well as more lasting, damaging fakes and frauds named Kardashian and Trump, it’s natural to laugh at what’s ridiculous. In a culture of faking, it’s harder to grasp that goodness—and a sense of benevolence gives Florence Foster Jenkins its wings—starts with honest effort, even if you fail to pull it off (and more so, in the case of Susan Boyle, if you do). Not every moment rises above what can also be acknowledged as a sad, tragic spectacle. But neither is every moment a jab or a joke about telling a gigantic lie and the best scenes depict with sincerity and strength the attempt to reconcile one’s damaged life in a perfectly balanced note.

Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)


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With movies such as Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and the harmonious hit Zootopia, Disney demonstrates that taking risks pays off with imaginative themes, scripts and storytelling. This summer’s animated/live action picture Pete’s Dragon, directed and co-written by the relatively new director David Lowery, is another good, wholesome family movie with warmth, intelligence and imagination. The reboot of a 1977 Disney movie with Shelley Winters, Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney of the same name debuts in theaters on August 12.

Pete’s Dragon is not without flaws, risks and odd moments. A character played by Wes Bentley (The Hunger Games, Lovelace) is underdeveloped. An old wood carver played by Robert Redford (An Unfinished Life, Captain America 2) is underdeployed. Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter, Terminator Salvation, Spider-Man 3) as the Redford character’s forest ranger daughter is more natural than usual but still overacts. Family relationships are unclear. The setting’s place and timeframe are also a problem. But the gentle blend of fantasy with realism allows Pete’s Dragon to be quiet, still and breathtaking. The picture, shot in New Zealand, is produced by Jim Whitaker (The Finest Hours).

In one of those classic Disney twists, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is left alone and parentless in the deep woods following a tragic car crash, rendering the whole story sort of a reverse Bambi except that it’s the beast, not man, that’s in the forest (notice how a deer figures into the plot, too). Pete is a young boy when this happens, equipped only with abiding love, an ability to read a story, his father’s sense of adventure and affirmation from his mother of his bravery as a virtue.

Aren’t these all a boy needs to be prepared to live?

Of course not, but they’re a good start, especially for an adventure story of a boy and his dragon and, lest you think Disney’s attempting to cash in on DreamWorks’ Dragon movie success, this one’s entirely different. Casting credit goes to Debra Zane who thankfully has an eye for casting un-precocious kids such as Fegley as the lost boy and the local girl, Natalie (Oona Laurence), who discovers Pete’s primitive existence.

Natalie’s dad (Bentley) owns a lumber mill, her uncle (Karl Urban, Bones in Star Trek Beyond) is a greedy lumberjack who hunts and Howard’s forest ranger, who lives with Natalie’s dad, predictably tilts left on ecology. If it sounds like an environmentalist cliche waiting to get tree-spiked, it isn’t. One of the nicest things about Pete’s Dragon is a more balanced approach (this it has in common with Zootopia) to politics, though Urban’s character borders on caricature.

Another nice thing is the girl’s relationship to the boy. See it and judge for yourself. It’s plain and simple. The two kids climb trees. They get hurt, angry, sullen and competitive and they have fun and keep secrets from adults. How refreshing. In that sense, Lowery and company keep the movie in a mid-1970s spirit, complete with acoustic guitar-driven tunes, classic cars and station wagons and a leisurely pace. Pete’s Dragon evokes Seventies’ solitude in nature works such as My Side of the Mountain and Jeremiah Johnson.

There’s not much to say about the 24-foot dragon, a green-haired, big-jawed snaggletooth Pete names Elliot for a dog in his favorite children’s book. Elliot feels ripped from the Seventies, too, as he’s a mild-mannered, innocent like the kid and the two romp, snuggle and take flight like a boy and his big dog. But there’s more to Elliot than being just another animated figure. His instincts are evident in his eyes. He senses danger. He has an ability to make himself invisible and he’s curious like Pete, too. That his heart beats loud enough when he’s filled with confused, raging desire to connect with his friend Pete sort of sneaks up on the audience. By all outward appearance, Elliot, beautifully animated in his gestures, eyes and flaring, breathing nostrils, loves his friend and his life.

When both are endangered, Pete’s Dragon gets worked up and twists with surprise and conjures the best boys’ friendship movies, from Disney’s Old Yeller and So Dear to My Heart to Steven Spielberg’s ET. It’s almost of that caliber at times, though it’s too imprecise in time, relationships and location and, lacking a defined timeframe, it’s impossible to block out one’s knowledge of global positioning technology and drones. Themes of loss and what makes a family are tenderly depicted. With mountain woods mythology and the sense of a real friend whose majesty can lift you up and take you away from everything wrong with the world—if only for a time—Pete’s Dragon earns and generates emotional power; moreover, it does this with an ending which deposits a boyhood lesson that the best things in life are earned, kept private and ought not to be shared. This subversive idea is in the title if you think about it—Elliot belongs by mutual consent to Pete—and it plays across this magical, intimate movie with a childlike sense of abandon.

Movie Review: Indignation

Opening with the sound of a slowly pulled bow on tightly bound strings, writer and director James Schamus’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, Indignation, is a lush, solemn and thoughtful, if not entirely convincing, movie. This is the first feature motion picture directed by Schamus, a Midwesterner and Hollywood studio executive, producer and writer whose work is evident in other serious films such as The Ice Storm, Milk and Brokeback Mountain, all of which are somber, subtle and moving and highly recommended.

IndignationPosterThough Indignation is slightly less successful than those pictures, it is also subtle, dark and thought-provoking. Newark, New Jersey, native Marcus (Logan Lerman) is the film’s focus and he narrates in short voiceovers, adding mystery to this already mysterious tale of a Jewish atheist attending a Christian college in the Midwest. One layer after another, beginning with the vague, nebulous, forgotten Korean War, gently falls over the plot, which takes place mostly at night, on campus, giving the whole 1951-based movie its look and feel of the Fifties in dark shadows.

Repression is everywhere, of course, especially here in an educational institution which, like today’s stifling leftist “safe spaces”, is ruled by tradition, faith and dogma. Marcus, like every other student, must attend religious services. When he finds his assigned dormitory mates similarly smothering—and this butcher’s son already feels smothered by his kosher, neurotic parents—he requests a new housing situation and gets sent to the dean’s office, where he is horrified to discover that the academic, like most modern education intellectuals, holds that the purpose of Marcus’s education is to learn to “get along with others”.

This is only one of several conflicts and, with Marcus as the individualistic freethinker, engaging, relating and sympathizing with this young innocent is natural. As he rises to the title’s state of irritation with unjust authority, former baseball and debate team captain Marcus finds release, romance and possibly more with wounded classmate Olivia (Sarah Gadon), an attractive and intelligent student who proves herself to be at least his equal in both damage and ability. Their relationship casts a spell of its own with certain consequences and it affords Indignation a beautiful framework which will stir the emotions of every lonely idealist. Schamus grasps this in Roth’s themes in the best way since Robert Benton masterfully adapted The Human Stain in 2003.

“Practice tact,” Olivia tells Marcus in a line which foreshadows the thematically pivotal plot twist to come. The youth marked by everyone from his mother (outstanding Linda Emond in a career best performance) to the dean (Tracy Letts) as smart, clever and promising must learn for himself the cost of choosing to become indignant at the unjust state of the world. Indignation doesn’t fill in every gap, and it falls short of fulfilling a potentially poignant counterpoint to the old hackneyed line about the atheist in the foxhole. But it is a rare depiction of what happens when a young man of the mind in mid-century, Midwestern America makes crucial choices that make all the difference.